If you have a balanced, supple, and powerful mountain biking position, riding is easy and fun. If you have an unbalanced, stiff, and passive riding position (and this is most riders), riding sure can be exciting! But trails will be harder and scarier than they need to be.
I've coached many riders over the years and developed a few key pointers that can benefit everyone from beginners to pros.
Low, balanced, aggressive and looking to the next turn. Braaap! | Rider: Lee McCormack
I've found that there are seven keys to developing a good body position on your mountain bike. Next time you're descending, try to focus on one of these seven things for a while. Once that feels natural, move on to the next thing. Perhaps you start from your feet and work your way up to your eyes. Maybe you go through this routine at the beginning of every ride!
1. Heavy feet
Since I coined the term "light hands, heavy feet" in my 2005 book "Mastering Mountain Bike Skills," that bit of advice has become MTB gospel — and for good reason, because it's simple and works great.
When all of your body weight is balanced on your feet, that weight gets distributed about 40/60 to your front and rear tires, respectively. That's how your bike is designed to ride. Your suspension absorbs bumps better, your front wheel carves corners and — this is important — you cannot get flung over the handlebars.
So, stand out of the saddle on your bike with your cranks level. How do you know you're perfectly balanced? Check your hands:
- If you feel pulling on your fingers, you're too far back.
- If you feel pushing on your palms, you're too far forward.
- If your hands are dainty like you're having a tea party, you're in the perfect place.
Once your feet are bearing all of your weight, try to cycle them heavy and light with the terrain. More on that with the next point.
2. Knees bent
Whenever any of your limbs are straight, you become a projectile — a hunk of meat hurtling to an uncertain fate.
Never, ever ride with locked knees! Keep them bent.
Yeah! Boosting some gnarly rocks, but totally balanced and poised. | Rider: Kerwin Miyashiro.
Once you're riding with bent knees, combine it with heavy feet and focus on cycling heavy and light with the terrain. Put very simply, push your feet down and straighten your legs (but not lock them) into holes. Pull your feet up and bend your legs over rises. This is the foundation of pumping, and it's key to becoming a great rider.
3. Hips back
When you push your hips back (way back) it does a couple of big things for you:
- It folds your torso level, which increases your arm range of motion. See below about shoulders.
- You support your weight with your glutes and hamstrings, rather than your quads. This is huge. Next time your quads start burning on a downhill, push your hips farther back. That should stop the burn.
If you don't feel tension in your hamstrings, your hips aren't back far enough. Really get them back — but stay balanced on your feet.
4. Shoulders down
When you drive your hips back, it folds your torso level and brings your shoulders forward and down toward the handlebar. In the gym, this position is called a "hinge." Great riders are great at hinging.
This here is a hinge. Get great at this. | Model: Lee McCormack
The lower your shoulders are, the more range of motion you have for braking, cornering and riding down the gnar. The higher your shoulders are, the more you become a bowling ball hurtling downhill uncontrollably.
As a first step, try to focus on keeping your shoulders low on every descent.
Once that makes sense, use your shoulders to get more dynamic. When your bike is about to go down something, get your shoulders as low as you can so you can push the bike away from you. When your bike is about to come up something, stand tall so you can pull the bike toward you.
5. Elbows behind hands
Starting with my 2005 book, I've been telling people to ride with their elbows way out. I thought it was more stable, and I thought it looked badass.
But I was wrong! And I apologize.
Pumping through a turn, elbows and hands at the same width. Braaap! | Rider: Lee McCormack
Your elbows should not be flared out, nor should they be tucked inward. They should hang naturally from your shoulders. Assuming your handlebars are the correct width (that's another article), most of the time your elbows should hang directly behind your hands. Put another way, your elbows and hands should be at about the same width. This gives you more range of motion, more strength, and healthier shoulders.
6. Hands light but powerful
Light but powerful? What the heck does that mean?
At the beginner level (really at all levels), we want our hands to be light. Light hands, heavy feet, remember? This keeps us safely balanced in the middle of the bike. It's an essential skill.
Tea party fingers — and a powerful push down this ledge. | Rider: Kevin Stiffler
At a higher level, we want our hands to be light and powerful. We actively pull the bars when the bike is going through a concave shape (through a hole, up a ledge) and push the bars when the bike is going across a convex shape (over a rock, down a ledge). This, plus light/heavy cycling with your legs, makes you very smooth on rough terrain.
7. Eyes up
We've all been told to look ahead. It's so obvious, but it's so hard to do. As soon as we get stressed, we look at our front wheels.
On a trail that you know, and at a speed that you find comfortable, force yourself to keep your head up and look all the way to the next turn. If you have to check a detail, let your eyes dart downward, but get your eyes back up ASAP.
This allows your conscious mind to determine your path, which is what it's built for, and it allows your subconscious mind to manage the details, which is what it's built for.
Focus on one thing at a time. Have fun out there!
Lee McCormack is a world-renowned mountain bike skills author and instructor who's worked with thousands of riders of all styles and levels. You can learn way more from his books, online school, and classes. Check them out at www.leelikesbikes.com.
Read Lee's other MTB skills posts:
Three tips to corner better on your MTB
Three tips to brake better on your MTB